Review: The Changeling, 2015, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

After a long gestation period, I’m thrilled to announce that my review of the 2015 production of The Changeling at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has been published in the latest issue of Early Modern Literary Studies!

This was a pretty emotional review for me to write, partly because I had such strong feelings about the production, and partly because this was one of the first things I pulled together for publication out of my doctoral thesis. I’m grateful to the reviews editor, Dave Nicol, and to EMLS for letting me turn this into a sort of hybrid article-cum-review with more detail and research underpinning than usual.

As much as I had a lot of issues with the production, writing this chapter of my thesis totally changed the course of my academic goals, so in a weird way I’m grateful to the former Artistic Director for giving me so very much to write about. The digital culture side of this chapter is currently being prepared as a separate article, which I hope to have out next year. Keep your eyes peeled!

And, of course, let me know if you’d like to chat Globe, Changeling, or doing old plays in the present. I’m always game.


White Fragility Hijacked Hidden Figures

*with mountains of thanks to Sharanya for talking through ideas & recommending reading, as always x

So I finally, finally saw Hidden Figures on a flight recently, and of course, I loved it. The film tells the story of three black women working at NASA during the “space race” in the 1950s and ’60s—in the words of the poster, it’s the story of “the women you don’t know behind the mission you do.” Although all three of these women started working at NASA much earlier (and some of the events portrayed also took place much earlier—more on that later!), the film focuses on the run up to John Glenn’s orbit of the earth in the Friendship 7 spacecraft in 1962. The women featured are Katherine Johnson (Goble), played by Taraji P. Henson; Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer; and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe. Referred to as “computers,” these women were among the many—black and white—who did computational work for NASA before machines could. The movie is based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.

I started sobbing within the first five minutes, when little Katherine Goble stands in front of a blackboard and explains analytical geometry to a room full of students twice her age.

The women who anchor the film gave stunning, committed, nuanced performances, with cathartic moments of passionate, explosive resistance (Katherine shouting down her boss; Mary convincing a judge to let her attend night classes at a white high school) balanced by moments that showed the weariness of constant, quiet resistance (Katherine including her name on NASA reports despite her colleague’s insistence that “computers don’t write reports;” Dorothy being frog marched out of the public library with her young sons; Mary’s husband reminding her that NASA doesn’t hire any female engineers, let alone black female engineers).

The representations of black womanhood in the film are spectacularly complex, giving us rare examples of women—and especially women of color—allowed to be both good at their jobs and wholly, emotionally human on screen. Our first encounter with Spencer’s Dorothy shows her fixing a broken-down car, lying on her back under the front bumper and diagnosing the problem as a police car zooms down the road toward her. She bypasses the starter to get the car going, and we next see her passing out assignments and chastising late arrivals at NASA. She holds her composure in the face of blatant discrimination from Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell, who heads the division of white “computers” but, finally, vents to her friends on the drive home about the unfairness of doing the work of a supervisor without the pay or the title. Katherine and Mary back her up, verbalizing their support for their friend alongside their frustration with the systems that keep them from moving up. Dorothy, for her part, manages to bemoan her own situation while lifting up her friends, who have that day moved into more prestigious assignments: “Progress for any of us is progress for us all,” she says. It’s a stunning, nuanced portrayal of selfless solidarity mixed with personal rage against a rigged system.

Obviously, there’s a lot to love in the film. For one thing, its representation of intelligent, driven women of color gives the lie to the age-old stereotype of African-Americans specifically as lazy and/or stupid, especially in light of the historical context. These were real women who really made enormous contributions to NASA and the space race—there’s no spinning that as “political correctness.” This is important, necessary, and timely work: we need more representations of diverse bodies doing highly skilled jobs. We need more intersectional representation in leading roles in general, and we need it now. Hidden Figures is a great step forward in this respect.


To put it bluntly: white fragility hijacked Hidden Figures.

I’m borrowing here from Robin DiAngelo, a scholar of whiteness studies, who first theorized the term in a 2011 article for the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. DiAngelo argues that “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress,” and that “[t]his insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress” (55). Because we so rarely have to confront our own race/race-based privilege, white and white-presenting North Americans can be extremely uncomfortable with the suggestion that they ascribe to racist beliefs or that they might be complicit in systems of race-based oppression—or even the idea that racism still exists at all. As Sara Ahmed puts it, privilege lies in the ability to not notice: “when you speak about racism, you become the one who [is perceived to] cause damage” by bringing up something that white and white-presenting people can usually forget, or fail to notice, or even become “invested in not noticing.”

This bring us back to Hidden Figures, which was directed by a white man, and which seems to go out of its way to soften or cushion its portrayal of 1960s racism in America for its white audiences. While there are gestures towards the ongoing fight for civil rights, references to Dr. King, and spectres of police brutality peppered throughout the film, segregation and racial discrimination are, overall, represented as inconvenient and unfair but not life-threatening. Katherine treks half a mile across NASA’s campus to use a “colored” restroom several times a day; Dorothy and her sons sit at the back of a bus after they’re escorted out of the library. Not-so-subtle differences in quality between the facilities provided for the “West Computing Group,” which is all black, and the “East Computing Group,” which is all white, are evident. There are one or two mentions of Brown v. Board of Education, but no one prevents Mary from entering or attending class in an all-white school once she gets her court order. We don’t see the really, really dark side of segregation in the early ’60s.

I say this not to diminish or underplay the cumulative weight of microaggressions, nor to suggest that these things—available bathrooms; freedom to choose a seat or use a library; updated, clean, well-lit work environments—are unimportant. Rather, my impression was that the film used these examples of segregation and discrimination rather than others in order to make its message more palatable to the white audiences who, among other things, make up ninety-some per cent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the body that awards Oscars).

There is certainly a counter-argument to be made: that depicting the subtler, systemic, unspectacular side of day-to-day existence under an oppressive regime (not too strong a description of segregation in America) is a powerful and potentially more transformative approach to changing hearts and minds; that racism is insidious and not always overt, and that films too often skew towards sensationalizing violence against black, brown, and female bodies (cf. Twelve Years a Slave). I am sympathetic to the argument that films could and should do a better job of showing us the exhausting challenge of just existing as a woman of color in America.

I don’t think that’s what Hidden Figures was doing, at least not intentionally. Comments from Theodore Melfi, the film’s director, suggest that such a portrayal wasn’t foremost in his mind when he created fictional white savior moments to punctuate Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s stories: “There needs to be white people who do the right thing,” he said, when asked.

There certainly are a lot of them. In the broken-down car scene that I mention above, the police officer initially behaves brusquely, but eventually acquiesces and even offers the women a police escort to Langley so they won’t be late for work. Beyond Katherine’s admonition to Mary—“No one wants to go to jail because of your mouth!”—as the cruiser approaches, there is very little suggestion that a white police officer might behave in anything other than a civil and professional manner towards women of color. This, we know, is untrue.

It’s not that white people don’t or never did “do the right thing”—it’s that there’s a conspicuous lack of white people who don’t “do the right thing,” either immediately or ultimately, in Hidden Figures. This is nothing less than an erasure of African-American history.

A key scene in commentary on the film’s white savior problem is the now-infamous “bathroom speech,” where Katherine explains to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) that she has to trek half a mile across Langley’s research campus to get to a “Colored” bathroom, so it takes her upwards of forty minutes just to relieve herself.

Although Harrison, Katherine’s boss, rages at her for always being absent when he needs her, he takes immediate action to desegregate NASA’s bathrooms as soon as he learns of the problem. He bashes down the “Colored” sign looming over the women’s restroom with sheer brute force. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” he announces, triumphantly, as he flings his crowbar to the ground and hulks off screen. A crowd of nameless black women look on, stunned.

As a number of critics (and Katherine Johnson herself) have pointed out, that’s not quite how it happened. In fact, NASA (then NACA) was desegregated by an untheatrical memo from associate director Floyd Thompson in 1958, three years before the film is set.

Aside from the historical inaccuracy (after all, it’s a movie, right?), the scenes of Katherine sprinting across campus, binders clutched to chest, or correcting calculations on the bathroom floor, are presented with a light touch. Pharrell Williams’ catchy, ’60s-inspired score bounces along as Katherine runs in her high heels, pushes her glasses off her nose, and drops paperwork en route to and from the bathroom. It’s almost comic: Katherine is inconvenienced, and we can see that it annoys her, but ultimately, it’s portrayed as no big deal until Harrison gets involved.

As Zeba Blay points out for The Huffington Post:

“the inclusion of the bathroom scene doesn’t make Melfi a bad filmmaker, or a bad person, or a racist. But his suggestion that a feel-good scene like that was needed for the marketability and overall appeal of the film speaks to the fact that Hollywood at large still has a long way to go in telling black stories, no matter how many strides have been made.”

I’ve talked about just two examples of scenes in which a white character behaved, well, better than many white people were behaving in 1961. There were many other scenes I could’ve picked. Don’t get me started on the contrived moment when Paul Stafford, one of Katherine Johnson’s fiercest antagonists in the film, lovingly delivers her a cup of coffee—a gesture intended, presumably, to smooth over the segregation of the coffee pots that occurs when Katherine begins working in the all-white division where she spends most of her time. As Ahmed says, “[s]moothing over often means: eliminating the signs of injury to create a fantasy of a whole.” It’s a sickly sweet moment, and it’s obviously designed to show us that Paul is actually a pretty good guy. He just had a little wobble there where he thought that black women weren’t really people, that’s all! Look at how Katherine’s hard work proved him wrong and won him over!

I could also talk about the pearls that Katherine’s co-workers pitch in to buy her when she gets demoted because they bought an IBM. This is the gift they choose because Katherine throws in an aside about not being able to afford the string of pearls that is supposed to be part of her dress code: “God knows you don’t pay negroes enough to afford pearls.” I would wish to point out to the filmmakers that she wasn’t complaining about not having a necklace; she was saying she wanted fair pay for her highly skilled work. But I guess jewellery softens the blow of being fired, anyway.

Enough. I don’t want to knock the movie. Like I say above, there’s a lot that’s great about it, and there’s a lot of good that’s come from its success. I’m glad it was made. I hope it inspires more mainstream cultural production that centers stories like Johnson’s, Vaughan’s, and Jackson’s.

But I also hope that the films already in progress, and those to come in the future, will think more critically and carefully about how they represent whiteness in stories about people of color. I hope that the next movie about women of color in STEM fields is brave enough to tackle their experiences from their perspectives unflinchingly. After all, their stories are compelling enough on their own.

Digging In: a response to (responses to) Dana Dusbiber

Those who know me know that I’m all about taking Shakespeare down a peg. But California high school teacher Dana Dusbiber’s now-viral dismissal of Shakespeare really made me think–or, more specifically, the responses to her made me think. Published by Valerie Strauss on her Washington Post education blog, Dusbiber’s article argues that Shakespeare does not serve the educational needs of her students, whom she describes as ‘very ethnically-diverse’. Following a rather weak opening in which she confesses that she simply doesn’t like Shakespeare herself, Dusbiber goes on to raise a few very legitimate concerns:

I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. […]

I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question. I am sad that we don’t believe enough in ourselves as professionals to challenge the way that it has “always been done.” […]

So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world? Many, many of our students come from these languages and traditions. Why do our students not deserve to study these “other” literatures with equal time and value? And if time is the issue in our classrooms, perhaps we no longer have the time to study the Western canon that so many of us know and hold dear.”

I’ve been disappointed to find that most of the counter-attacks from the Shakespeare scholarly and theatrical communities have taken one of two approaches: they appeal to an outdated argument regarding Shakespeare’s unique grasp of the human condition, or they suggest that Dusbiber has never been exposed to “proper” Shakespeare.

If we’re going to argue for keeping Shakespeare on a national curriculum, the first approach clearly will not change Dusbiber’s mind or the mind of anyone who agrees with her. She says right in the article that she doesn’t buy Shakespeare’s supposed “universal” applicability–and to be frank, neither do I. Reminding us that Shakespeare wrote about people of colour and women will not erase the fact that he was, after all, a white dude from a relatively privileged background who wrote for actors from a very similar demographic. I don’t think we can still get away with arguing that Shakespeare uniquely speaks to some kind of essential humanity that transcends race, gender, and social class (not to mention geography and chronological time). Reminding us that everyone can relate to themes like love and loss will not change the fact that other writers (as Dusbiber points out) are equally capable of engaging with them. This essentialist approach isn’t going to help Shakespeare’s case, no matter how ardently you believe in his universal applicability.

The second approach follows a similar logic, in that it implies loving Shakespeare is the default setting of humanity, and so the problem is not with Shakespeare but with ineffective pedagogy. It comes in many forms, perhaps the most popular being the argument that Shakespeare isn’t properly taught as literature at all–that he needs to be staged or at least analysed from a perspective of performance in order to be really appreciated. While I happen to agree that teaching Shakespeare exclusively at desks is ineffective, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that anyone who doesn’t like Shakespeare must not have been exposed to the more theatrical way of learning his plays. Some people will never connect with Shakespeare because–despite centuries of protestations–his plays aren’t actually universally applicable (cf. Artaud). No one’s are. There’s no such thing. Yes, the plays are wonderfully varied and quotable, but there’s only 37 of them for goodness’ sake. Lots of people will find it easier to understand and appreciate Shakespeare when they’re taught the plays from a performative point of view, but that doesn’t mean the ones who don’t walk away adoring the Bard are somehow defective humans.

Of course, the proponents of these defences of Shakespeare have no intention of insulting the very humanity of those who don’t appreciate him–they simply want to share the joy that they’ve found through engagement with Shakespeare. And it’s entirely understandable that Dusbiber’s article would provoke that kind of response: she repeatedly tells us that she feels no personal connection to Shakespeare, despite being a ‘voracious reader’. But both these kinds of responses conveniently avoid the central question buried beneath Dusbiber’s muddy appeals to personal taste: What is the place of Shakespeare–and indeed of the traditional Western literary canon–in an increasingly expanded curriculum?

If we’re going to argue for Shakespeare’s place in the classroom, we’ve got to come at it from a place of historical contingency. Shakespeare was once just a white dude from England who wrote some plays, but in the 400 years since his death he has come to signify much more than the cultural circumstances within which he lived. Shakespeare is now not only part of the Western literary canon, but he has been adapted and adopted by people all over the world–often in ways that speak back to the conservatism of the traditional canon and to the imperialism that brought them the canon in the first place. An obvious example is Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, which uses characters and situations from The Tempest in order to engage with issues of power, race, and imperialism. As Sonia Massai and Preti Taneja pointed out in a recent BBC Radio broadcast on Global Shakespeares, his plays were part of a British imperial agenda, and they have now become part of a worldwide conversation across literary and performance genres. They’re no longer limited to England, or even to the English language. That distinction between Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the cultural icon is one of the arguments we can make for the continuing relevance of Shakespeare in the classroom. It’s not that Shakespeare is somehow better at speaking to us about the human condition, but rather that he’s now so entrenched not just in Western literature but really in global literature. I certainly wouldn’t say that the plays are universally relevant, but it’s also hard to argue that they are completely irrelevant. Opening up the curriculum to include creative responses to Shakespeare allows a teacher to demonstrate the ways in which issues relevant to Shakespeare might also be relevant to us, while still questioning the canon and empowering students to critique and speak back to Shakespeare’s authority.

In addition, I would argue that teaching Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s sake is much different from teaching a unit, module, or entire course of English or European Renaissance literature. Lots of responses to Dusbiber have critiqued her by saying that Shakespeare’s plays range all over the world, and therefore should be applicable to everyone. His scope seems rather narrow, however, compared with other playwrights of the period. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, for example, ranges all over the Middle East and offers obvious departure points for discussions about racial and religious differences, xenophobia, imperialism, torture, and other issues that are still highly relevant today. So, too, does Fletcher’s The Island Princess, set in the “spice islands”, or modern-day Indonesia. The Island Princess also lends itself to discussions about globalisation and international trade. The subplot of Jonson’s Epicoene allows for conversations about globalisation, too, and its main plot offers plenty of space for discussions about sex and gender identities–as, indeed, most of the comedies from this period do. I could go on.

I realise, at this point, that I might be accused of making exactly the same argument that I refuted above: that the plays of the English Renaissance have some kind of universal relevance. That’s not at all my point in bringing up the various relevances of non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays. Rather, I want to demonstrate two things. First, Shakespeare’s plays are not unique in their ability to speak to contemporary issues. Secondly, and therefore, if we’re going to argue that English Renaissance literature is important, we can no longer limit ourselves to Shakespeare. I could envision an exciting and dynamic set of lessons covering global literature from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which uses English Renaissance drama as a point of departure for a much broader conversation. I could also picture a much less chronological syllabus that pairs a work of English literature with an adaptation or a piece covering similar themes from any period in history, and anywhere in the world. As an example from outside the Renaissance, I remember reading Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea immediately after Jane Eyre in my first year of undergrad and feeling like my entire world had been exploded–in the best possible way.

None of us will be able to convince Dusbiber that she’s wrong about Shakespeare, and Dusbiber probably won’t convince the Shakespeareans and early modernists of the world that we’re wrong about him, either. But if we’re going to argue for the place of Shakespeare and English Renaissance drama (or indeed, English literature more generally) in an expanding canon, then we need to stop countering calls for change by digging in our heels and start looking at how to adapt.

My Problem with the Wanamaker (maybe)

I’m writing a lot lately about the complex relationships between Shakespeare and his contemporaries (a phrase I hate, actually…they could just as easily be Middleton’s or Jonson’s contemporaries, surely?). One of the problems that has come up again and again is the message implicit in major companies’ policy on producing Jonson’s or Middleton’s or Marlowe’s plays: particularly in companies that include ‘Shakespeare’ in their name, any early modern play not written by Shakespeare is considered a commercial risk. The Bard sells the tickets. Consider the RSC’s stance on the issue: Coen Heijes notes in his chapter for Performing Early Modern Drama Today that ‘Performing Shakespeare’s contemporaries was something of an unaffordable luxury for the RSC as long as it had only one theater to operate in Stratford’, whilst ‘The Swan opened up the possibility of finally exploring Shakespeare’s contemporaries in a more consistent manner’ (71, 73). According to Michael Boyd, the twenty-first century Swan provides ‘an opportunity for something to prove itself […] and grow much more effortlessly to have a life in the main house’ (qtd. in Heijes 84). The RSC sees Shakespeare’s plays, then, as being pre-screened: there is no need for a production of Hamlet to ‘prove itself’ before being allowed into the main space.

Never mind that this binary has been completely shattered by the success of  Doctor Faustus at the Globe in 2011 and The Changeling at the Young Vic in 2012 and…I could go on and on.

The problem has extended more recently to the Globe’s new indoor playing space, due to open in January 2014. Although many of Shakespeare’s late plays would have been produced in the Blackfriars, an indoor playhouse similar to the one the Globe is currently constructing, this new theatre has not been advertised as belonging to Shakespeare. Instead, it is either the ‘indoor Jacobean playhouse’ or, more officially, ‘The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’, after the current Globe’s late founder and benefactor. While it could easily have been ‘Shakespeare’s Blackfriars’ or ‘Shakespeare’s Indoor Playhouse’, in line with the name of the parent company and the main playing space, the marketing for this new theatre has been deliberately non-Shakespearean. The inaugural season of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will include The Duchess of Malfi, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and The Malcontent, handily balancing a more popular non-Shakespearean early modern tragedy against two lesser-known plays, along with an Italian baroque opera and several concerts. Dominic Dromgoole’s statement on the inaugural season is diplomatic, suggesting that ‘in time, we will perform the plays of Shakespeare in there’, but expressing his delight at ‘opening this theatre with three such shining jewels’ of non-Shakespearean early modern drama.  On the surface, this seems like a positive step towards inclusion of a wider variety of plays and playwrights within the current early modern performance canon. Consider, however, the implicit coding: the Wanamaker is a smaller, and more expensive, theatre space, comprising 350 seats with prices starting at £10 and running up to £75; in contrast, the Globe offers 700 £5-tickets at each performance and caps prices at £39. This alone results in greater accessibility for plays produced in Shakespeare’s Globe as compared to the Wanamaker. While former artistic director Mark Rylance opened Shakespeare’s Globe with a season containing plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in equal measure, the only non-Shakespearean early modern play on that stage during Dromgoole’s term so far was Doctor Faustus in 2011. The first season at the Wanamaker could therefore be read as a segregative message: the Globe is for Shakespeare, but the Wanamaker is for other playwrights; and furthermore, Shakespeare should be accessible to everyone, but his contemporaries need not be.

Future seasons at both Shakespeare’s Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be telling in this respect. I’m the first to acknowledge that more productions of early modern plays that were not written by Shakespeare is an amazing thing–but I do think that the way they’re produced and where they’re produced can be as important as the mere fact of their production.

Heijes, Coen. ‘Shakespeare’s contemporaries at the Royal Shakespeare Company’. Performing Early Modern Drama Today. Ed. Pascale Aebischer and Kathryn Prince. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. Print. pp. 70-84.

‘The Duchess of Malfi to open Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’. BBC News: Entertainment and Arts. 22 April 2013. Web. 15 May 2013.

Research Musings: I thought I’d said ‘no’ to this, but…

How is it–after completing an MA in Staging Shakespeare and vowing up and down that my doctoral thesis would be about something other than this ridiculous monolith we call the Bard–how is it that I’ve ended up writing and reading about Shakespeare basically all the time? He’s inescapable. Even the Oxford Collected Works of Thomas Middleton talks an awful lot about Shakespeare.

Since he seems to be following me–or, more accurately, since he takes ‘ubiquitous’ to a whole new level–I have come to begrudgingly accept that I can’t run away from him. It might be impossible; it’s certainly very difficult, and I am just a lowly doctoral candidate without enough real clout to declare to anyone besides my anonymous blog audience that Shakespeare is, objectively speaking, no better at playwriting than his contemporaries. Besides, that terrible, constructed dichotomy of ‘Shakespeare’ and then ‘everyone else’ really gets on my nerves (which is totally an academic turn of phrase). As I pointed out in a recent post here, it makes very little sense to me to go around comparing Shakespeare’s plays to, say, Middleton’s in search of a value judgement on either of their works. That would be like taking Shaw’s Pygmalion and Ibsen’s Ghosts and trying to decide which was the ‘better’ play. Ibsen and Shaw wrote different kinds of plays. Is it useful to compare and contrast them without making an (implicit or explicit) value judgement or pitting their works against each other in some kind of ridiculous battle for supremacy? Absolutely! But why does everyone insist on reminding their readers that the constructed idea of “Shakespeare” would cringe at some of the scenes in The Changeling? Please keep in mind that we’re talking about the man who wrote King John.

(Thinking about it in retrospect, I sort of take that back…it would be better to say that comparing Shakespeare and Middleton is like comparing Shaw to Shaw’s slightly-less-well-known contemporary who was notwithstanding a very good playwright. But I think you can see what I mean. Hopefully.)

I’m starting to think, however, that there might be interesting research to be done around what happens to the relationship between Shakespeare and Middleton over time. It’s probably not a topic unto itself (not yet, anyway, I’m still developing the idea), but it might be worth at least a chapter. How and why did Middleton return to vogue? Why was 2007 the year in which the first Middleton Collected Works was published? What does the 20th-century theatre see in Middleton that the 19th-century theatre didn’t (despite his strong–if Bard-qualified–presence in academia)?


Research Musings: Cultural Capital

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past couple of days about Middleton and Rowley’s relationship to Shakespeare. I am now convinced that it is literally impossible to research a play by any early modern playwright besides Shakespeare without also researching Shakespeare. This is frustrating, especially because I deliberately chose not to propose a Shakespeare topic for my PhD.

Take, for example, a book I skimmed through today: Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe by Pauline Kiernan. It reads like a sort of retrospective look at the new Globe’s first seasons, especially in the final section, which is comprised of statements from actors and directors who worked on the first shows to be produced there. The opening season in 1997 was made up of four plays: Henry V, The Winter’s Tale, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and The Maid’s Tragedy. That’s right folks: two by Shakespeare, one by Middleton, and one by Beaumont and Fletcher. Let’s take a moment to digest that information: the opening season at Shakespeare’s Globe was half Shakespeare and half Shakespeare’s contemporaries. One would never know this, however, from reading the aptly-titled Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe. 

In the aforementioned final section of the book, there are something like twenty or thirty interviews. By my count, only six or seven mention A Chaste Maid in Cheapside at all, despite the fact that most of the interviewees acted in that play. Of those six or seven, only two actually say something significant about the play or the production. I think it’s telling that the director of Chaste Maid notes in his statement that ‘Richard III would be terrific here’.

I’ve been advised that it is, indeed, academic suicide to not address the issue of Shakespeare’s ‘cultural capital’ in my dissertation, at least in the introduction. I know that I have to do it, but I hate that I have to do it. My supervisor, Kate, shared an anecdote with me from her university years when I expressed my frustration that I couldn’t find anything on Middleton that didn’t compare him to Shakespeare: she said that, in a gender studies lecture, her tutor explained how to identify a discriminatory statement. She claimed that if you could reverse a statement without it sounding ridiculous then it was not discriminatory; if not, then the original statement was probably objectively ridiculous, despite being normalised by society. So let’s consider the statement–which crops up in a lot of Middleton biographies and critical studies–that Middleton, in his best work, “approaches” or “comes near to” the genius of Shakespeare.

Turned around, that reads:

Shakespeare, in his best work, approaches the genius of Middleton


Shakespeare, at his best, comes near to the genius of Middleton.

No sane scholar would ever use that inverted version. Why? Because Shakespeare has been created as a cultural pillar, a benchmark by which all other playwrights are measured. It’s next to sacrilege to even suggest that Shakespeare would have to measured against the “genius” of another playwright.

So what if, rather than attempting to turn the tables, I try to leave Shakespeare out of the equation–at least the version of Shakespeare that has become a ubiquitous cultural icon. It may not be possible, for example, to leave out a discussion of the allusions in The Changeling to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But what are the theoretical implications of treating Shakespeare like everyone else? What, if any, are the potential problems of treating him as just another playwright?


It’s time to end this marriage equality nonsense in America. How about that Declaration of Independence, US? “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain, unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That pretty much says it all for me. Whether you personally/religiously/morally agree with it or not, it’s time to recognize that a person’s right to marry another person is not something that can or should be legislated. Looking back, do we think it was just or right to prevent slaves from marrying? Or to outlaw interracial marriages? I guarantee you that in a hundred years, the world will look back at these debates and think, “What?! Our ancestors were barbarians!”

This post was inspired by the following two links, one disturbing, one awesome (See if you can guess which is which!) :

Starbucks’s official statement can be viewed here: